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East-West Fusion

Kirtan master and multi-instrumentalist Jai Uttal blends the sacred and secular in his latest musical creation, "Mondo Rama".

By Derk Richardson

From its wry, evocative title to the meticulously defined musical details embedded in every track, Mondo Rama makes it clear that Uttal recognizes no impermeable barrier between the sacred and the secular. Some might focus on the unwavering devotional content of such songs as "Shri Krishna," "Kali Mata," "Bom Blenath," and the Hebrew chant "Shalom," which Uttal adapted from a prayer on a medallion he received while visiting a Kabbalistic center in Israel. Others might just as easily hear Mondo Rama as a pop album, not only because of the modern instrumentation and production wizardry but also by virtue of Uttal's confessional songwriting. Indeed, one could imagine such tunes as "Exile" and "Mood X," which express the angst of "walking the highways late late late at night" and seeing "a world that's crumbling 'round me stone by stone," being sung by pop icon Sting.

"This is the first album I've done that has a little humor in it," Uttal admitted in a telephone conversation last November. Most of Mondo Rama's lighthearted moments pop up in the margins: "Tomorrow Never Knows" begins with some jagged plucking on an out-of-tune acoustic guitar, with Uttal growling like an old Delta blues man; a minute-and-a-quarter-long track called "Mondo Rama???" creates a partylike discussion of the whimsical album title, culminating in a "Mondo Rama will rise again" sing-along.

The title came to Uttal when he was traveling around in Central America. He was reading a book called Mondo Desperado and was reflecting on the notion of "the world is Rama," which he had gleaned from a translated scripture. "I was thinking Everything is God,' but that sometimes it's really weird and hard to see as God," he explained. "The word mondo,' as in Mondo Desperado or [the controversial 1963 Italian film] Mondo Cane, has this subtext of over-the-top craziness. So those two streams of thought joined in my head.

"To me, Mondo Rama is a combination of a really profound spiritual concept--everything is God--and the attitude that this world is so weird it just blows my mind," he says. That gives a psychological and philosophical grounding to the recording's mind-boggling blend of psychedelic and atmospheric trip-hop sound effects (including Beatlesque "backwards" guitar parts), sampled sounds from everyday life, authentic instrumentation from deeply rooted cultural traditions (from Hindustani sarod and African drums to Appalachian banjo), and inspired devotional singing.

Largely inspired by the Beatles' ambitious experimentalism on Revolver, Uttal and collaborator Leinbach managed to create their own kaleidoscopic masterwork by recording Mondo Rama almost entirely on computers in their home studios. "This was a big production," Uttal notes, "and we were in way over our heads, technologically. From the very beginning we both felt that this entity Mondo Rama had a life of its own. Every time either one of us tried to push to make it go faster, something would happen, like the computers would break and the process would just abort. Whenever we would get into that space of surrender, all this great creativity would come through, and things would go smoothly."

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